The Armenian alphabet was created in 405 a.d. by the vardapet Mesrop Mashtots‘ (Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց).1 At the time, the liturgical language of the incipent Armenian Church was Syriac,2 which hindered Armenian missionaries in their work of propagating Christianity throughout the various regions of the land, still largely under the sway of Zoroastrianism. Because of this, Mashtots‘ and Catholicos Sahak Part‘ew (Սահակ Պարթեւ) realized that an alphabet was necessary to translate the Bible into Armenian, and to perform the sacraments of the Church in the people’s native tongue.3 They brought this to the attention of King Vṙamshapuh (Վռամշապուհ), who instructed Mashtots‘ to find a suitable alphabet.4 Mashtots‘ travelled to Syria with his pupils, meeting with clerics and scholars from the Syrian school in Edessa and the Greek school in Samosata. After a period of difficulties, he succeeded in his letter-engendering endeavors.5 With his task completed, Mashtots‘ returned to Armenia with the new 36 letters (նշանագիրք, lit. “symbol-characters”).6 Mashtots‘ and his associates then began the monumental work of translating the Bible, and other Syriac and Greek works, into Armenian.7 According to his pupil and later biographer Koriwn (Կորիւն), the first words written with the new alphabet were Ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ, “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding” (Prov. 1:2).
|Ա||ա||Ayp||a||a as in father|
|Բ||բ||Pen||b||p (unaspirated) as in spot|
|Գ||գ||Kim||g||k (unaspirated) as in skip|
|Դ||դ||Ta||d||t (unaspirated) as in stop|
|Ե||ե||Yech||e||ye- as in yell in initial position|
|e as in bet|
|Զ||զ||Za||z||z as in zebra|
|Է||է||E||ē||e as in less|
|Ը9||ը||Ut||ĕ||uh as in but|
|Թ||թ||To||t‘||t (aspirated) as in top|
|Ժ||ժ||Zhe||zh||zh as in pleasure|
|Ի||ի||Ini||i||ee as in queen|
|Լ||լ||Liwn||l||l as in lamb|
|Խ||խ||Khe||kh||kh (gutteral) as in Scottish loch|
|Ծ||ծ||Dza||ts||dz as in heads|
|Կ||կ||Gen||k||g as in good|
|Հ||հ||Ho||h||h as in hotel|
|Ձ||ձ||Tsa||dz||ts (unaspirated) as in what’s up?|
|Ղ||ղ||Ghad||gh||gh (gutteral) as in Baghdad|
|Ճ||ճ||Je||ch||j as in jump|
|Մ||մ||Men||m||m as in map|
|Յ||յ||Yi||y||h- as in home in initial position10|
|y with a vowel in a diphthong|
|– usually silent in final position11|
|Ն||ն||Nu||n||n as in now|
|Շ||շ||Sha||sh||sh as in ship|
|Ո||ո||Vo||o||vo- as in vote in initial position|
|o- as in over in initial position when folowed by վ|
|o as in boat|
|Չ||չ||Cha||ch‘||ch (aspirated) as in match|
|Պ||պ||Be||p||b as in boy|
|Ջ||ջ||Che||j||ch (unaspirated) as in matchbox|
|Ռ||ռ||Ra||ṙ||r as in run (but slightly rolled)|
|Ս||ս||Se||s||s as in sip|
|Վ||վ||Vev||v||v as in vat|
|Տ||տ||Diwn||t||d as in dog|
|Ր12||ր||Re||r||r as in run|
|Ց||ց||Tso||ts‘||ts (aspirated) as in hats|
|Ւ13||ւ||Hiwn||w||v as in David in final position, or when followed by a vowel|
|w sound – see ու, աւ and իւ letter pairs below|
|Փ||փ||Piwr||p‘||p (aspirated) as in pot|
|Ք||ք||Ke||k‘||k (aspirated) as in kit|
|Օ14||օ||O||ō||o as in own|
|Ֆ15||ֆ||Fe||f||f as in father|
(ե + ւ)
|ew||yev- in initial position|
|ev as in seven|
|ու16||u||oo as in boot in final position, or when followed by a consonant|
|v as in cover when followed by a vowel|
|աւ17||aw||o as in bone when followed by a consonant|
|av as in java in final position, or when followed by a vowel|
|իւ||iw||yoo as in yourself when followed by a consonant|
|eev as in Steve in final position, or when followed by a vowel|
|այ||ay||ay as in eyelid|
|-a as in java for most words ending in -այ|
|ոյ||oy||ooy as in Louisiana|
|-o as in slow for words ending in -ոյ|
|եա||ea||yah as in yacht|
|եօ||eō||yo as in yolk|
|իա||ia||ee-ah as in aleluia|
1 Koriwn (Կորիւն), the pupil and later biographer of Mashtots‘, does not use the name Mesrop in his History of the Life and Death of the Blessed Man Saint Mashtots‘ Vardapet Our Translator (Պատմութիւն վարուց եւ մահուան առն երանելւոյ սրբոյն Մաշտոցի վարդապետի մերոյ թարգմանչի), commonly known as the Life of Mashtots‘ (Վարք Մաշտոցի), which was written between 433 and 450 a.d. The name Mesrop does not appear with Mashtots‘ in the written record until some time later, and its origin is uncertain. One account relates that local residents near his tomb began to refer to Mashtots‘ as մեր սերովբէ, “our Seraph”, which later devolved into մեսրոպ.
2 Syriac is the literary language that arose from the Aramaic dialect of the region of Edessa (Ուռհա, Uṙha) and Nisibis (Մծբին, Mtsbin), which became the liturgical language of Syrian church.
3 There were also political reasons for the creation of the alphablet. At the time, the Kingdom of Armenia no longer existed as an independent realm, having been partitioned in 387 a.d. by the so-called Peace of Ekegheats‘ (Եկեղեաց) between the Sassanian (Persian) Empire and the (Eastern) Roman Empire, whereby the eastern four-fifths of Armenia became a client kingdom under Persian control, and the western one-fifth became a Roman province. In addition, Syrian bishops were seeking to increase their influence over the emergent Armenian Church in the Persian-controlled east, and Greek (Eastern Roman) bishops were seeking the same in the Roman-controlled west. Thus a unique Armenian alphabet would not only facilitate the proselytization of Christianity in the land, but help maintain the autonomy of the Armenian Church from encroachment by the Syrian and Greek churches, and help preserve the national identity of the Land of Armenians (աշխարհ Հայոց) under foreign control.
4 According to Koriwn, Vṙamshapuh initially told Mashtots‘ and Sahak of a Syrian bishop named Daniel who had letters of an Armenian alphabet. This alphabet was sought, found, and brought to Armenia. “However, after realizing that the letters were not sufficient to wholly express the syllables and articlations of the Armenian language—especially since these letters were culled and resuscitated from the literatures of other peoples—they then returned once again to their same concern, and for some time sought a way out of the predicament.” (Koriwn, The Life of Mashtots‘, exerpt translated by Jesse S. Arlen, in Walters, J. E., ed., Eastern Christianity: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021.)
5 “Thus [Mashtots‘] patiently endured many labors in order to invent a means of help for the good of his nation. And to him the state was granted by the God of all graces: in the manner of a father to give birth to a new and wondrous offspring, letters for the Armenian language, by his holy right hand. And then he immediately composed, engraved, and named them, arranged them in syllables, articulations, and sonorous signs.” (Ibid.).
6 The original 36 letters created by Mashtots‘ were those from Ա to Ք, with only one form for each letter (which became the upper-case forms upon the later development of lower-case forms). In the late 11th or early 12th century, the letters օ and ֆ were added (see Notes 14 and 15 below).
7 The Armenian Bible was originally translated from the Syriac Bible and later re-translated from the Greek Bible. The Armenian Bible is unique among those based on the Greek, since it contains some elements of the earlier translation from the Syriac.
8 The transliteration of Armenian letters herein uses the Library of Congress system, a commonly-used standard which represents the Armenian letters using the Latin alphabet. The LC system is based on the phonetic values of Classical or Eastern Armenian; however, the letter names and pronunciations in the table are based on modern Western Armenian.
9 In general, the letter ը is only used in the initial position of certain monosyllabic words (e.g., ընդ), and words derived from them by nominal composition (e.g., ընկալիմ). The uh sound often occurs before or after a consonant without a written letter ը (e.g., զսուրբսն, pronounced uz-soorp-sun). The letter ը is occasionally used with a consonant when a vocalized syllable is needed for rhythmic meter, or when sung in a hymn (e.g., ըզՏէր, նըշան, Տեառըն, etc.).
10 The letter յ is also pronounced h in compound words where the յ is the initial letter of a stem word in the compound (e.g., անյատ, pronounced an-had).
11 In the final position of a monosyllabic word, the letter յ is pronounced as the -y component of the diphthong (e.g., հայ, pronounced hay).
12 Very few Armenian words begin with the letter ր, and of those that do, most are of foreign origin.
13 No Armenian words begin with the letter ւ.
14 The letter օ was added to the Armenian alphabet in the late 11th or early 12th century, to replace the letter pair աւ in words where its Classical pronunciation as the diphthong aw had shifted to the monophthong o (e.g., զաւրութիւն became զօրութիւն). The letter pair remained in use for words in which pronunciation of the letter ւ shifted from w to v (e.g., the spelling of հաւատով remained unchanged). Additionally, the Instrumental plural suffix -աւք became -օք.
15 The letter ֆ was added to the Armenian alphabet in the late 11th or early 12th century, to represent the foreign sound of f. Prior to this, the sound was generally represented by the letter փ, especially in loan words from Greek having the letter φ (e.g., փիլիսոփայ, “philosopher”, from the Greek φιλόσοφος). After the introduction of the letter, words with the f sound would be written with ֆ or փ, depending on the scribe’s customary usage. For example, during the Cilician period, Armenian scribes often designated a Western European person by the word Frank, spelling it either as Ֆռանգ or Փռանգ.
16 The Classical pronunciation of the letter pair ու, as the diphthong ow, either shifted to the monophthong oo (e.g., սուրբ, pronounced soorp), or the ո became silent (or kept a slight uh sound) in those words in which the pronunciation of ւ shifted to v (e.g., Աստուած, pronounced Asd-vadz). In much later texts, the letter pair ու with a v pronunciation would sometimes be written as ըւ (e.g., Աստուած, written as Աստըւած).
17 See Note 14 above.